June 21, 2009 § 5 Comments
A handsome guy, isn’t he? In his boxers and tee shirt, baby in hand, beer bottles on the side: most likely a Sunday. Judging by the size of my brother, very possibly in June. 1951.
I can’t celebrate Father’s Day in the ordinary fashion because my father killed himself 44 years ago last Wednesday, when he was 44 years old. He was 44 and 6 months (exactly), so next December 16, he’ll be dead as long as he was alive. I suppose I should save the date.
I remember as a little kid suddenly putting together the father images from books and TV—strong and loving protector, befuddled nice guy—and the person I knew as Daddy: the snarl of a cornered animal inside the fence of a good suit. The stench of anger and unhappiness. The guy in the photo was still there, but emerged too rarely to do anything but gape at.
It was a weird mindfuck. I had a father and I didn’t. It was especially striking because my mother fit the storybook prototype so closely. She might dress up more and not cry as much as some, but many of my favorite books had mothers who were glamorous and stoic. I had no problem thinking of her as the ur-Mother against whom all others were measured. Daddy on the other hand…
When I remember that long-ago moment, what I see/feel is a whirl of emotion, hot and dark, spiraling down into the pit of my stomach. It was more than I could make sense of or handle—part of the reservoir of stuff usually hidden in that place Freud made us believe in, though he couldn’t get the map right. Something had broken a piece free and it popped into consciousness, vertiginous, only to be sucked down again quickly. I forgot but I remembered. The feelings were gone but I had a snapshot. Much later I made sense of that snapshot and had all sorts of questions for that little girl. Mostly this one:
Who did you think he was, then, before you understood that he was a father?
I knew he was attached to all of us inescapably, and that I wanted him as much as feared him. He was certainly vivid; he held the room when he was in it, if only with his silence. But he wasn’t real in the way my mother was. My mother was like breath or sleep. My father had violence going through him continually, from the boom of a thunderstorm to a quiver in his pulse, and I jumped back from that. I erased him.
I don’t mean I didn’t notice or have forgotten his presence, his personality, his insults, his threats (children running upstairs as the man shouts, “I’m going to brain you!” that southernism adding a layer of sci-fi gothic), but they were removed from me. He shouted; we fled. I never thought about why he did anything.
When I cut the cord with my mother, I was old enough to know I was doing it, and to keep my finger on the way back. With Daddy it took place so early I couldn’t quite place him. Even as he belonged, he was a stranger in the house. His death cleaved me in two, but the aboveground part, the daily Margaret, was very relieved to live in a house with only family, even if we were all more than a little nuts.
My father embodied anger: anger as the flag of a country, as a deadly sin, a god. I’ve met plenty of people as angry or angrier than he was—the world is full of them—but he was the only one of his breed that I’ve ever loved. Anyone else, if I get a hint of that kind of rage, my heart chills instantly. No matter what they’ve suffered, their excuses, I feel no sympathy for them.
Those are the people I can be cruel to without compunction. Though I try to talk myself out of it, on some level I think of them as having no souls. They rage; I wither.
I’m well aware that this is my anger, and that I indulge it. That I often feel very fond of it, that it’s why I have so many fantasies of killing in self-defense or in defense of a loved one or a child. I wonder if I would feel as utterly undisturbed by righteous killing as I imagine. Probably not. On the other hand—and this is an aside to my sister—I really don’t feel bad about killing mice.
I rarely lose my temper and I put a lot of thought into fairness. That’s how I keep my anger bound, how I balance it. That’s how I love my father.
There should be other parts to this, like buying him the new Philip Roth or a bottle of single malt, but so it goes. When your father kills himself a few days before Father’s Day, you kind of get the message there’s nothing he wants from you.